The current item on my WWI reading list is Solzhenitsyn’s November 1916, a thousand-page tome that will probably give me massive biceps by the time I’ve finished lugging it around. People complain about its “long passages providing historical background,” but I eat that stuff up; I’m probably the ideal reader at the moment, since I already know who all the historical characters are. What I’m complaining about is the bizarre set of choices made by the translator, H.T. Willetts, when it comes to rendering place names. The first chapter begins: “Birds don’t like some forests. There were fewer birds in skimpy, stunted Dryagovets than in Golubovshchina, three versts to the rear.” This is a perfectly decent rendering of the original: “Птицы любят не всякий лес. В жиденьком слабеньком Дряговце было их куда меньше и скучней, чем в Голубовщине, три версты в тыл.” What I am here drawing attention to is the rendering of the Russian names as (transliterated) Russian. Normal, you say? Sure, but a few paragraphs later we get: “…allow the Germans to cross the Szara, occupy the Torczyc Heights, and convert the manor house on the hill at Michalowo into a fortress.” The “Szara”? “Torczyc”? What the hell? I checked the Russian, and found “…а немцам дать перейти Щару, занять Торчицкие высотки и обратить в крепость возвышенный фольварк Михалово.” Any sane translator would render the place names as Shchara, Torchits, and Mikhalovo. But the good Mr. Willetts has for some reason lapsed into Polish. From there on, it’s what seems to be a random mix; “Baranowicze” (normally known as Baranovichi, where the Russian HQ had been earlier) and “Stolpce” (Stolbtsy) are followed by “Sablya,” which is followed by “Lake Koldyczew,” which is followed by “Melikhovichi.” Sometimes he yokes the two in the same phrase: “No Stwolowicze [i.e., Stvolovichi], and no Yushkevichi.” What is going on here?

Now, I grant that there are Polish names for all these geographical features in the part of the former Russian Empire that adjoined Poland, just as there are (say) Greek names for many places in Turkey and German ones for places in Eastern Europe. And I grant that Belorussia/Belarus (where these early scenes are set) was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). But that was many centuries ago, and during WWI the area was part of the Russian Empire, and the official language was Russian, and the local populace presumably spoke either Russian or Belorussian for the most part, and though there were doubtless Poles as well I’m completely at a loss to understand why a random sprinkling of place names should be given in Polish (which, among other things, makes them harder to look up). Any light that can be shed on this irritating mystery will be much appreciated.


  1. Maybe it was Polish during the interwar period and Willetts used a reference published then?

  2. My tip is the translator was consulting a Polish map. I’ve seen this sort of thing before – Hungarian placenames in Slovakia and Romania, German in the Czech Republic and Poland and Polish in the Ukraine and Belarus. Happens a lot, actually.

  3. The only reason I can think of is that the translator took the forms he/she found in different reference books, taking them, in its turn, from different sources, Polish or Russian. In fact, every place in the region has Belarusian, Polish, and Russian forms of its name, with bizarre interference between them. The D town, particularly, can’t be Belarusian nor Polish, because both languages never palatalize /r/, and seems to be entirely fictional (Google shows it only in the phrase you quoted).
    (I couldn’t post the comment with the full town name, because the system takes it, or at least the letters D—g, as “questionable content”.)

  4. Ah, I hadn’t thought about his consulting different reference works. Well, in that case he’s just an idiot. Listen, Mr. Willetts, it’s great to look stuff up, I would have done it myself, but it’s one thing to find the place on a Polish map and quite another to copy the Polish form into your translation. It would have been better for everyone if you’d done no research at all and simply transliterated the Russian you found in the novel; it doesn’t matter where the damn villages are, it matters that you have consistent renditions that don’t drive the alert reader insane. Grr.
    Oh, and sorry about the spam filter, miram — I keep running across strings that I must have added in a fit of pique at one time or another that turn out to impede normal communication.

  5. BTW, what is the meaning of the questionable D word? Google was of no help.

  6. I don’t see anything in the list that should cause trouble….
    OK, that’s weird. When I tried to post a comment with Drya followed by g in it, I got:
    “Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: Drya” (with g after the a). But there is no such string in my Blacklist! Anybody know what’s going on here?

  7. Artificial intelligence has a mind of its own. I knew this would happen. They’re taking over.

  8. Have you got rid of the comments problem? The thing is, no-one can comment on my site at all. I use MT-Blacklist 1.6.5. I can’t understand the error message. Jay Allen told me to copy and paste my list and try deleting first one half, then the other, and by process of elimination find the right combination. But at the moment I can’t even work out how to delete chunks en masse without clicking 2,000 boxes.
    I think there have been recent comments that are designed to cause mayhem when added to the list.

  9. I haven’t had any further problems (except with the usual spam), so I haven’t investigated further. I now have almost 5,000 items on my blacklist and occasionally think about weeding out the older ones, but it seems like too much trouble.

  10. Jay Allen basically told me to upgrade MT, although he gave me advice first. This is the first time I haven’t been able to identify and delete by hand such a problem entry (I have over 4,000 entries too). I think I will delete some laboriously and see what happens.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Maybe there is a Doctor Yag[…] who once offered to sell some medicaments from Mexico or Canada?

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